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January 22, 2014

Are your clients ALWAYS right?

When I first got started in business, I used to say that “the client is always right.”l_nodding_dog_pink

Once I got a little time under my belt, that morphed into “the client is always right, but they aren’t always correct.”

Now, after three decades in business, it’s “the client is often right, but when they aren’t… it’s time to talk.”

Here are the 3 times when you must have a “direct” conversation with your clients…

Scenario #1: You want it when?!

How often does a client say to you, “I have to have that back by 5 o’clock today!” and it’s 2PM when they say it?  [Stop laughing!]  So, what do you do… you bust your a** to make it happen, stressing out your employees in the process.  Frustrating, isn’t it?

And if you get good at responding to those kinds of 11th hour requests, what you’re actually doing is training your clients that it’s OK to keep asking.

Response:   Next time this happens, respond like this… “Mary, I won’t be able to get that back to you by 5pm today, but I promise to get it into your hands by 10am tomorrow.”  Guess what?  In virtually every case, the response will be, “That’ll be fine… thanks.”  Proof that you have been training your clients that they can demand anything when, in fact, there is no emergency.

Scenario #2: Project creep!

Have you ever had a client try to sneak a few extra things into your agreement?  [Again – stop laughing.]  You know how it works… your agreement with them includes services A through K.  But once things get started, they ask you to throw in L, M and N.  “C’mon… they’re easy and won’t take much time.“

And they’re right… they are pretty easy and they won’t take much time.  But they still do take some effort and they still do take some time and, most importantly, they do provide additional value – value for which you should be compensated.

Response: These are the kind of situations where you don’t want to appear inflexible… but on the other hand, your client needs to be fair to you, too.  Perhaps a response like, “Mike, we’d be happy to do that for you, but it will increase expenses and take a little more time than we had originally planned, increasing your project fee to X.  Do you still want to do it?”

Scenario #3: You wanna do what?!

And sometimes, the client is just wrong!  Or doing something badly.  A bad assumption, a bad decision, bad planning, bad execution, etc.  And while they are the client and, ultimately, are gonna do what they’re gonna do… you know that if they proceed as they want, it just won’t go well.

Response: The challenge here is to be direct without being insulting or demeaning.  I’ll use a response like this, “Alice, you didn’t just hire us to do a job, you also hired us because of our knowledge and expertise.  We would not be holding up our end of the relationship if I didn’t bring the following to your attention…”


Telling a client “no, but…” or “sure, but…” or “uh-oh…” are difficult to do.  First, there’s rarely a history of talking like that to a client.  These are conversations we’re not used to having and they make us uncomfortable.  It’s just so much easier to say ‘yes’ and nod our heads like one of those little toy dogs we used to see in the rear window of a car.

Secondly, does “standing up” to a client run the risk of losing that client?  The answer is doubtful… but maybe.  If your client relationship doesn’t go beyond a cursory project-based relationship – then maybe.  But if you’ve built up a strong “partnership” type relationship where you’ve proven to be a trusted and valued vendor, then no.  Your client will understand.

For these kinds of conversation, keep these four things in mind:

  • Be honest
  • Be direct
  • Be fair
  • Be nice

A good vendor-client relationship is not a one-way street… the best ones involve a genuine and open dialogue where the end result is a win-win.

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